Coming to Terms with Big Religion


“…I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” Rev. Dr. Eugene Peterson, July 12, 2017

“… I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.” Rev. Dr. Eugene Peterson, July 13, 2017.

While not on par with say, Big Agra or Big Pharma, it would be a mistake to dismiss the continuing existence (and clout) of a corporate-style entity worthy of the term: Big Religion.

Indeed, while considerably less extroverted than at its 1980s Falwellian zenith, a conservatively doctrinaire, deep-pocketed, politically ambitious strain of Christianity is alive and well in America.

This tradition of the well-heeled melding hard-right politics with hard-right theology is today typified by the heads of two lucrative corporations (Hobby Lobby’s Dan and Barbara Green and Chick-fil A’s Dan Cathy) and the activist scions of religious legends (Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr.) — all of whom spent the last four years raising dollars and rallying votes on behalf of the presidential candidate who least understood their born-again theology.

But just as Big Religion mimics its secular corporate cousins in their willingness to place the external interests of the tribe before its stated convictions; it can likewise resemble the business model with its internal sanctions for those not invested in being a “team player”. (Just ask politically progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, who has for decades suffered the slings and arrows of fellow believers who recoil at his gospel of the prophetic Jesus — the one who always sides with the marginalized, politics and niceties be damned.)

Thus from time to time, Big Religion seems to emulate the business world’s need to expunge an embattled CEO, especially apostates who dare express an inconvenient doubt about an assumed religious truth. Or in some instances, simply equivocate.

The Rev. Dr. Eugene Peterson is not by appearance nor reputation a rabble rouser. At 84, thin and looking frail, his many books (including a researched and well-received modern translation of the Bible, “The Message”) have for decades been staples within both evangelical and fundamentalist circles; written in a pastoral, yet scholarly fashion that has earned him a degree of attention outside those traditions.

It was all the more surprising when in a July 12 phone interview with Religion News Service correspondent, Jonathan Merritt, the pastor-scholar diverged from the traditional fundamentalist position on homosexuality, and declared he would officiate same-sex marriages were he still in parish ministry.

As was to be expected once Merritt’s column was posted, all hell broke loose as biblical literalists and Peterson fans received word their champion had crossed so bright a theological line. Within hours, conservative writers and bloggers — some associated with religious outlets, some purely political — ravaged Peterson as a “traitor to the Gospel” and “defector from biblical orthodoxy.”

Next came a strategy of business-class censorship and economic leveraging, as LifeWay Christian Stores, an affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), issued a clear warning:

“LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage. We are attempting to confirm with Eugene Peterson or his representatives that his recent interview on same-sex marriage accurately reflects his views. If he confirms he does not hold to a biblical view of marriage, LifeWay will no longer sell any resources by him, including “The Message.”

A day later, via the conservative religious organ, Christianity Today, Peterson issued a clear retraction. He was, he said, taken off guard by Merritt’s “hypothetical” question. The biblical position is clear, Peterson told the interviewer: one man, one woman.

Sermons abound in such circumstances; but progressives of all stripes should resist the temptation to focus on Peterson’s retraction, and consider instead the systemic forces that brought coals of fire down upon a tribal elder whose great transgression was wondering out loud at the wrong time, wrong place.

The real takeaway is our coming to terms with the notion of Big Religion — the ever-evolving confluence between well-funded, rightist politics, and similarly entrenched religious gatekeepers that play dirty, then justify it in the name of doctrinal purity.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2017

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